Street preachers say arrest violated civil rights

David Yates Nov. 19, 2007, 8:00am

A file photo from the group's Web site shows SPF Director Ron McRae preaching in Washington, D.C.

Members of the World Wide Street Preachers' Fellowship (SPF) are suing Beaumont's mayor and police chief, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated when they were arrested for "preaching about the sins of homosexuality."

SPF members Wallace Langford and Jeremy Burt filed suit against Beaumont Mayor Becky Ames, Police Chief Frank Coffin and three unnamed police officers in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Beaumont Division on Nov. 9.

As they travel and preach throughout the world, SPF members are often confronted by police for what some consider their outlandish and offensive speech. The SPF Web site dedicates a whole page "on how to deal with police."

An Associated Press article indicated SPF members filed a similar lawsuit in Grand Rapids, Mich., last fall because police shut down the street preachers outside a pagan festival.

According to the plaintiffs' suit, Langford, Burt and another SPF member were armed with megaphones and signs, preaching in front of Parkdale Mall. Several passersby called in complaints, and the two men were soon confronted by three Beaumont police officers.

The officers told the men that they were allowed to preach about God, but that their signs defaming homosexuals were offending people. When the two self-professed preachers refused to lay down their signs and stop "screaming God's Word" through amplified microphones, the officers arrested the duo for disorderly conduct and violating a noise ordinance, the suit said.

On Oct. 17, 2006, a trial was held before the Beaumont Municipal Court. Burt was acquitted; however, Langford was found guilty of violating the city's excessive noise ordinance and fined $556. Langford has appealed the court's decision, the suit said.

"Plaintiffs and other SPF affiliates wish to continue to engage in protected First Amendment activities on the public sidewalks of the City of Beaumont but fear that the City in the future and in response to their exercise of their protected First Amendment rights in public fora will maintain its policy of threats, arrests, and prosecutions and will continue to discriminate against their speech based on its lack of welcome from other persons in the community," the suit said.

The suit goes on to say that the city's noise ordinance is unlawful.

Langford and Burt spent five hours in jail for their conduct. The duo believes they were falsely imprisoned and are entitled to punitive damages, the suit said.

Punitive damages are awarded as a means of punishing the defendant.

The plaintiffs' story

On November 25, 2005, Langford and Burt were preaching on a public sidewalk in front of the busy West End shopping mall.

"While standing and walking along the public sidewalk, Wallace Langford preached about the sin of homosexuality to people in the public fora," the suit said. The plaintiffs also held signs reinforcing their message. In the course of his preaching, Mr. Langford at times used a megaphone to speak to the people around him. Recorded video shows him addressing those passing by.

"A portion of the recorded conversation with the police clearly shows that Mr. Langford's arrest was based strictly on the content of the message and the fact that his message was "upsetting" other people in the area."

The video supposedly begins with officer " John Doe 1" saying, "You need to take the camera off of me... I'm going to ask you one more time to take the camera off."

In the suit, Langford says he attempts to explain his Constitutional rights. Officer Doe 1 then responds by asking, "What does [the Constitution] say about Texas state law, then? ... Tell me what it says about Texas state law. We're getting calls on you; therefore, it's a problem. ... You need to leave."

Officer John Doe 2 also chimed in and said, "Ya'll can't stand out here and upset people with your signs. I don't have a problem with you out here talking about God, preaching what you believe; that's your business. But you can't stand out here with these signs about the fags and people's callin' in on it. Okay?"

"At no time during Plaintiffs preaching was there a risk of civil unrest," the suit said. "Plaintiffs were simply preaching in a manner so as to be heard by the passing vehicles. No crowds or groups of loud or angry persons ever gathered together opposing or threatening Plaintiffs."

The suit goes on to say Officer Doe 1 removed the megaphone from around Langford's neck while he was not looking. Then, he proceeded to arrest him. Burt attempted to get closer to video the arrest, but was told by officers to back away and leave the area.

When Burt refused to leave, he was arrested and told by Offiver Doe 1, "You're gonna go to jail for blocking the sidewalk."

"At no time during Plaintiffs' preaching were other pedestrians present on the sidewalk and passage on the sidewalk was never blocked or prohibited by the Plaintiffs," the suit said.

Langford and Burt were initially charged with Disorderly Conduct but the charges were changed to a violation of the Beaumont Noise Ordinance § 13-14.

"Subsequent to their arrest, Plaintiffs spent approximately four to five hours in jail," the suit said.

In addition to punitive, nominal and compensatory damages, Langford and Burt are seeking an injunction against the defendants to enjoin them from enforcing the city's sound ordinance, and infringing on their First Amendment rights, so they can be allowed to preach, hold banners and leaflet within the public for a of Beaumont.

The plaintiffs are demanding a jury trial and are represented by attorney Jeffrey Mateer of the Lamberth Mateer law firm.

Case No. 1:07cv856

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